I was initially interested in the new documentary, Wojnarowicz, for the glimpse it promised into the 1980s East Village art scene–a time and place that holds great curiosity and sentimentality for me. David Wonarowicz was part of this same short-lived but long-influential art scene as my father, Joe Schactman. A small network of outsider artists who weren’t recognized by the monied art establishment (and didn’t want a seat at that table anyway), they created new art spaces in the dilapidated, half-abandoned East Village. I’ve spent years writing about my father and this era, and I was curious to see how filmmaker Chris McKim might manage to evoke these artists’ mindset and attitude, and bring the old neighborhood to life.
And the documentary delivers on that front: Wojnarowicz’s own photographs and audio diaries bring the viewer right into the grit and possibility of the East Village in the late ‘70s and ‘80s: a wasteland-turned-playground for artists who worked in all different mediums—photography, painting, writing, music, making art with found objects and whatever was available. They collaborated and influenced each other, sharing space and materials and putting their creative output at the center of their lives, taking wry delight in pushing boundaries and creating work that excited them, without taking into account anything like “audience” or a “market” or “commerce” (these were dirty words).
Rejection from establishment gatekeepers only made them more determined—“forget it,” Wojnarowicz says in voiceover, speaking of his efforts to find a publisher for his book of monologues (eventually published as Sounds in the Distance). Of an editor who rejected the manuscript, calling it a “waste of time,” he says: “Everything she said just reinforced my belief of its importance.” Even when Wojnarowicz started gaining some commercial success and recognition, he was wary and resentful of rich people trying to commodify his art. He rebelled by making an installation piece he’d been hired to do at the home of wealthy banker Robert Mnuchin (yes, of that Mnuchin family) entirely out of filthy garbage he collected in the abandoned lots of the East Village–complete with cockroaches.
I found myself nodding along in nostalgic recognition as Wojnarowicz recounts in his audio diaries getting a job at an ad agency “for all of two weeks,” spending his time there using their Xerox machines for his own artwork; and sneaking into abandoned spaces to make art there. This was indeed my father’s world, the ethos that I was raised in: art is everywhere if you want it to be, and the rules are made to be ignored–preferably flagrantly defied.
What ended up making the deepest impression on me while watching Wojnarowicz was not the nostalgia, though, but just how incredibly current and relevant it feels. Wojnarowicz’s magnificent rage—first aimed at the art establishment and the rich people he understood to be the enemy, then later at the government mismanagement of the AIDS epidemic, leaving queer people like himself to die—feels so exactly of this current moment. Or more accurately, it feels needed in this current moment.
After his AIDS diagnosis, Wojnarowicz’s work became more explicitly political, angrier, louder. The film takes its subtitle–F**k You F*ggot F*cker-—from a piece of Wojnarowicz’s own work. “Realizing I’ve got nothing left to lose with my actions,” he wrote, “I let my hands become weapons, my teeth become weapons, every bone and muscle and fiber and ounce of blood become weapons, and I feel prepared for the rest of my life.”
For a protest at the FDA headquarters, he adorned a leather jacket with the words: “If I die of AIDS — forget burial — just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.” This jacket became an iconic object of AIDS activism, a rallying cry reproduced on posters and buttons for years to come. The phrase was revived during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, amid outrage at then-President Donald Trump’s mismanagement and the lack of federal response. ACT UP, the organization at the heart of the fight for support for AIDS patients, released a face mask with a reworked version: “If I die of COVID-19—forget burial, drop my body on the steps of Mar-a-Lago.”
McKim is clearly aware of the ways his subject matter has become timely all over again, though he doesn’t let that draw focus away from the short, intense life and brilliant work of David Wojnarowicz—who did, in fact, die of AIDS, in 1992. The film invokes Trump three times: once while Fran Lebowitz speaks in voiceover about the American Family Association’s attempt to shut down a show of Wojnarowicz’s work, claiming it was obscene, and how she urged him not to bother trying to fight ultra-right bigots because he would never change their minds. She says, “There are always people like this, sometimes they’re more powerful than others, that was a moment of power for those kind of churches and those kind of people—we’re in one now, again,” and there’s Trump’s face just for a second. “In the end, they never have the power of an artist,” Lebowitz continues.
The other two appearances are more like winks: a clip of Ronald Reagan promising to “make America great again,” where we don’t see Trump but are reminded of the politics that made him possible, and again with the briefest possible flash of an image of Trump’s face while an entry from Wojnarowicz’s audio diary plays, speaking about the potential for political influence in art: “When people put themselves on the line in their work, whether it’s music, writing, photography, painting or whatever in terms of ‘Culture’ with a capital-C, they apply a tiny amount of pressure against a system of control that would willingly jump into fascism if there wasn’t enough pressure on its throat.”
I watched this documentary to reminisce, but instead was confronted with this urgent reminder that the pressure on the throat of the system must be vigilantly maintained. We’re in a critical moment: after four years of heightened political awareness due to the disaster of the Trump era, we’re in the early stages of what will hopefully be a much more stable Biden era, during which it would be all too easy to slip into complacency. The flagrant disregard for human decency that defined Donald Trump’s presidency stirred up political consciousness in people who’d never paid much attention before—it was a crisis too outrageous to ignore. But when Wojnarowicz spoke three decades ago about the necessity of maintaining pressure on the throat of the system, he was talking about a system that existed long before Trump became a politician, and that will continue to crush and abuse the most marginalized people now that he’s out of office. Hearing Wojnarowicz’s words—spoken in an entirely different era but so strikingly, urgently relevant to today—reminded me that the true threat is what will happen if we don’t stay engaged, stay present, stay angry, especially when it feels like maybe it would be ok to look away.
I’ve often wondered what my father would have made of the current political world. He died in 2000—before 9/11, before social media was a part of everyday life, before the Bush v. Gore Florida disaster. I have a pretty strong hunch he would’ve been disgusted by the current state of the union, but we never talked much about politics—I was still a kid when he died. Watching Wojnarowicz felt a little bit like discussing politics with my father, hearing the passion and outrage carried over from the ‘80s into today. The belief that the system is fucked, and that it’s our right and in fact our duty to get in the way.
It’s difficult to recapture the particular flavor of rage that was prevalent in the era Wojnarowicz and my father were working in—the ways in which they were provocative don’t translate directly to today. Now everything is provocative, everything is in your face, everything is at a fever pitch. But if everything is provocative that means nothing is, and so it’s up to us—the writers and artists, the people with the potential to put pressure on the throat of power—to figure out what the next iteration of magnificent rage will look like. What’s the next boundary to push, the next norm to flaunt? I’m not sure, but Wojnarowicz reminded me that staying comfortable is not an option—it’s up to us to expose what’s not exposed, display what’s taboo, and to put ourselves on the line every single day.
Wojnarowicz, which premiered at DOC NYC in November, 2020, is slated for theatrical release on March 19.
Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards (forthcoming in May); and the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of essays on women’s anger. Find her on Twitter at @lillydancyger.